State of the Planet

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Coffee for the Birds: Connecting Bird-watchers With Shade-grown Coffee

Since 1970, bird populations in North America have declined by approximately 2.9 billion birds, a loss of more than one in four birds. Factors in this decline include habitat loss and ecosystem degradation from human actions on the landscape.

J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera (right) on a tour of a shade-grown coffee farm in the Gedeo Zone, Ethiopia
J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera (right) on a tour of a shade-grown coffee farm in the Gedeo Zone, Ethiopia. Credit: Wendwesen Temesgen Jena

At the same time, enthusiasm for bird-watching has grown, with more than 45 million recreational participants in the United States alone. Now, researchers are looking into how to mobilize these bird enthusiasts to help limit bird population declines.

Enter bird-friendly coffee.

Bird-friendly coffee is certified organic, but its impact on the environment goes further than that: it is cultivated specifically to maintain bird habitats instead of clearing vegetation that birds and other animals rely on.

Researchers from Virginia Tech, Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), and Cornell University, explored whether bird-friendly coffee is on the radar of bird watchers: Are they drinking it and, if not, why not? The study results are published in the journal People and Nature.

“We know bird watchers benefit from having healthy, diverse populations of birds, and they tend to be conservation-minded folks,” explained Ashley Dayer of Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “My colleagues and I wanted to dig into this key audience to determine their interest in bird-friendly coffee.”

Bird-friendly coffee is shade-grown, meaning that it is grown and harvested under the canopy of mature trees, a process that parallels how coffee was historically grown. But with most farms in Central and South America and the Caribbean converting to full-sun operations, crucial bird habitats for migrating and resident bird species are being lost.

“Over recent decades, most of the shade coffee in Latin America has been converted to intensively managed row monocultures devoid of trees or other vegetation,” explained Amanda Rodewald, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “As a result, many birds cannot find suitable habitats and are left with poor prospects of surviving migration and successfully breeding.”

There are also other implications of land-use transformation, said IRI’s J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera, one of the study’s authors. “The benefits of shade-grown coffee go beyond bird habitat and biodiversity. The use of canopy is one of the main adaptation strategies to face increasing climate variability, and it affects other sustainability dimensions, such as food security and pest control.

Purchasing shade-grown coffee is one of seven simple actions that people can take as a step toward returning bird populations to their previous numbers. “But even simple actions are sometimes not taken by people who you would expect to be on board. Human behavior is complex — driven by knowledge, attitudes, skills, and many other factors,” explained Dayer.

The research team surveyed more than 900 coffee-drinking bird-watchers to understand bird-friendly coffee behavior among birdwatchers.

“One of the most significant constraints to purchasing bird-friendly coffee among those surveyed was a lack of awareness,” said Alicia Williams, lead author and former research assistant at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech. “This includes limits on understanding what certifications exist, where to buy bird-friendly coffee, and how coffee production impacts bird habitat.”

“I was surprised to see that only 9 percent of those surveyed purchased bird-friendly coffee and less than 40 percent were familiar with it,” Williams added. “It was also interesting, though not surprising, that a large number of our respondents reported that the flavor or aroma of coffee was an important consideration in their coffee purchases, which could be a useful attribute of bird-friendly coffee to stress going forward.”

The next step to increasing awareness about shade-grown coffee and its potential impact on bird populations may include increased advertising for bird-friendly coffee, more availability of bird-friendly coffee, and collaborations between public-facing conservation organizations and coffee distributors.

“Finally, it is also essential to recognize additional benefits of shade, and the minimum profitability conditions required by farmers,” said Hernandez-Aguilera. “Our work revealed that supporting the livelihood of growers is equally desirable by birdwatchers. Unfortunately, farmers do not necessarily benefit economically from preserving the forest. We need innovative ways to approach the problem.”

In Ethiopia, where coffee is traditionally grown on plantations shaded by native trees, Hernandez-Aguilera and others working on the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday) Columbia World Project are making efforts to bring and translate climate information to the farm level.

“The goal is to provide customizable tools that allow farmers, industry and policy makers to quantify the benefits and costs of specific climate adaptation strategies such as shade-grown coffee systems and improve market and policy instruments’ design,” Hernandez-Aguilera said. “Novel strategies, and better information and communication channels will benefit birds, people and coffee.”

Adapted from a release by Virginia Tech

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